“Name your price… in the beginning, if it ever gets more expensive than the price you name, get out of there.” – Dave Chapelle
Ok, “selling out”. Probably the most inflammatory topic to artists and indie musicians, and the least interesting to anyone old enough to owe on their taxes. I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of when it is and isn’t appropriate to make money for your art, how much, from whom, in what venues, whatever. That was another me in another lifetime. I’ll just offer two perspectives on the artistic form of “selling out” and move on. First, Henry Rollins says some smart things in very salty language (you’ve been warned). Second, my brother says you’re only really “selling out” when you sell your guitar. And he’s a very non-commercial musician with very strong opinions.
Ultimately, as I’ve said before, you gotta be you and make your own call. If you’re an artist, makes those decisions early and stick to your principles – see Dave Chapelle above. Or don’t, your call.
Art is one thing. The biggest down side of “selling out” in art is that you make some extra money in ways your inner 16 year old finds contemptuous. When we get into social movements, however, that’s another thing.
There’s a big nasty word for “selling out” in social movements – it’s called co-optation. (Actually, strictly speaking, selling out is willingly participating in your co-optation, but let’s not get hair-splitty at this time of night.) The dictionary definition of “co-optation” (see also: “co-opt” “co-option”) is fairly benign (“to win over by assimilation” being the closest to my meaning), but it’s a pretty ugly word. When appropriately applied, it describes a person or organization or word or concept being used for a veneer of credibility, while the wielder acts contrary to its apparent meaning. Think greenwashing. Astroturfing. An oil company with a greenie sock puppet. The word “sustainable” is now completely meaningless, if Suncor can claim to be doing “sustainable development.” It has been co-opted. Suncor is, pure and simple, a goddamn oil company, and resource extraction can never ever ever under any circumstances barring violations of the laws of physics be in any meaningful way “sustainable.” At best, fossil fuels can be used as a bridge to get us to a real-time solar economy, as Buckminster Fuller articulated in his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, but we’ve kind of shat the bed on that option.
Whew! I’m really worked up today. That’s not my style, and I apologize. But spending the day counting pipeline petitions for the Dogwood Initiative has had that effect. Fossil fuels are over, let’s move on.
As I was saying, co-optation is an ugly word for an ugly effect. We’ve seen some examples of when it can be appropriately applied, and that’s ugly enough. Accusations of co-optation can also be used as a weapon, to divide communities. Particularly activist communities. Particularly minority activist communities. Sometimes it’s applied honestly but mistakenly. My internet buddy and blogging idol Jill Fillipovic and others (someone once said that if you’re writing about a topic, a woman of colour somewhere has probably already done a lot of work on it, and is influencing you without your knowledge, or at least acknowledgment. It kills me that I can’t remember who.) have written about “call out culture“, wherein the first communication people sometimes go to is an accusation of heresy. When a musician accuses another of selling out, the worst that can happen is that a few guys with bad hair think each other are assholes. When it happens in activist communities, it can spell the end of the community, and in some cases end careers. I’ve seen many a talented blogger lost to some ugly ugly disputes. Not that the disputes weren’t in many cases legitimate, but let’s just say it can get really raw really fast. And it diffuses the power of activist communities.
Which bring me to the feature presentation. (Fanfare, please!)
Professor Rutley’s Tips For Awesome Social Movements, Volume 1
(Disclaimer: Ryan is not actually a professor, even though he’s been called it derisively many times, and his “tips” are just things he thought up late at night through the fog of half-remembered fragments of his Sociology degree.)
1. Don’t give up.
Keep at it. Keep on pushing. Hold on. Never give up. Sound familiar? Yes, you should recognize this one from every motivational everything ever. There’s a reason that tabby kitten told you to hang in there. The fastest, easiest, and most permanent way to lose is to stop trying. Once you’ve sold your guitars, you don’t even have a chance of rocking. Keep trying new crazy things, eventually something will get traction. Or if it doesn’t, you’ve spent your life actively engaged in doing something you believe in. Y’know, you’ve wasted it, instead of doing something productive like making a lot of money in work that offends your very being and makes the world worse.
2. Stick together.
The second best way to never get things done is to make up all kinds of stupid pissing contests to soak up all your time. Conservatives know all about this. The problem of the left is that we agree on the fundamentals, but countless issues separate us. On the right, countless issues separate them, but they agree on the fundamentals. I don’t propose to solve division in activist communities, alls I’m saying is that if they stick together, work through their differences and come together on things that are fundamentally important, they’ll be a force. You’ve seen this in the Occupy movement – I think one of the reasons they’re scrupulous about calling themselves a non-partisan movement, even though they’re certainly left-influenced, is that if they start acting like a left-wing movement they’ll soon separate like an over-buttered hollandaise. Stick together. Remember what’s important. There’s a reason why the coolest politicians are the ones who ignore partisan divisions and work directly on issues that people value. And there’s a reason why they’re not operating within established party structures. I can’t top Benjamin Franklin on this: “”We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
There are other tips for social movements. Lots of ‘em. Engage existing social structures. Speak to people’s values. Give people ways to be involved. Y’know, tactics. But the strategic Big Two, the two essential sine qua non unimpeachable non-negotiables are those above. Stick together, and don’t give in. And you’ll see the promised land.
Artistically, make your own calls and commercialize, or don’t, according to your heart. But when it comes to your deepest values, your decisions about what kind of world you want to live in, never sell your guitar.